“Staring at cows is the height of sanity”
So says Boatman Bennet, a comment which makes sense in the isolated Irish island mini-world that is Inishmaan, whose inhabitants and their tragicomic lives were played brilliantly in a Mermaids production of a play of Martin McDonagh’s book The Cripple of Inishmaan. They performed last Friday evening and did a Saturday matinee performance too. A dark comedy, with a hilarious and quietly emotionally impactful script, it was an inspired choice of play to put on for the On the Rocks festival.
The plot, though wily, is very simple – it is the relations between the islanders that is the real focus. A rum bunch on first glance, moody and feuding, the fondness they harbour for one another and the layers of tenderness and secrets and collective pain is brilliantly evoked. The two old aunts, Kate and Eileen, played by Sophia Anderson and Megan Rough were fantastic: one pucker-mouthed, rotating her head slowly to gaze with contained irritation, bright blue censorious eyes. She had an increasingly hunched back and was an emotional eater who yet retains a high degree of grounded sanity, while her more fragile sister shuffles around speaking to a stone – a funny, fond depiction of someone who has lost their marbles. They reminded me of a line from my favourite book (Housekeeping), where a kind neighbour is described as having “lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.” This same benign, clement mocking that McDonagh intended in his play was realised perfectly.
They look after Billy Claven, nicknamed ‘Cripple Billy,’ who is derided by the islanders but loved by them too – a kind of agape, or filial love because they all step in for the parents who left him. Toby Poole played Billy brilliantly – especially as he is a quiet, crushed kind of character who drags himself as inconspicuously as he can (except, the actor wants to stress his crippledness, so it’s mock-inconspicuousness… meta) across the stage, staring doe-eyed out to the sea and only once asserting himself: “would you, would you not call me Cripple Billy anymore… just, Billy.” His secret desires and wishes he keeps mainly to himself.
Johnnypateen was the self-proclaimed news-bringer, a nosy gossip who seems pretty distasteful until a very key detail of Billy’s past and the scene and meaning of his parents suicide is later casually conveyed. He’s abrasive, and his time on stage brings with it the more slapstick elements of the action, but he’s an easily imaginable mainstay of the island community. His mother, Mammy O’Dougal, an alcoholic (whom Johnny mercifully/wickedly assists in her slow self-assassination), is hilariously played by Millie Delaney-Doust – her hoarse voice, choppy discourse, the tangled mare’s nest of her bed and the depiction of a bed-bound body and its drunken movements; it was really brilliant acting. Mammy DcDougal’s situation touched on the darker, sadder undertones beneath the brazen humour in the performance. The pathos and the wryness came through very well.
Boatman Babbybobby Bennet is a self-contained widower, a coiled spring of a person, he provides good comedy in his cat-fight interactions with fellow villagers – his trademark seemed to be dormant quietness, followed by enacting (deserved) violence. But there was kindness in him too, and Harry Johnson portrayed this well – especially as the first time we see him he is sat by the coast, quietly sanding the oar for his boat; a man who has known and still knows sadness.
Eilidh MacKinnon played Helen McCormick, a humorously rough-hewn teen – unrefined in her manner, brash in her remarks about people, she enjoyed throwing eggs at people and laughing at them, her sexuality is a laughing point because she uses it indifferently and as a bargaining chip – we get a glimpse into what it must like to be a young girl on the sequestered Inishmaan island. Her brother Bartley McCormick, a buffoon – buffoon-like, intermittently insightful, obsessed with sweeties and telescopes and America, he was played very funnily by a very tall Tom Carruth, kitted out in what looked like school uniform. Dr McSharry was the local doctor, determinedly Hippocratic and naturally mild-mannered, his more assertive comments were well played; while the aunts gossip about a local girl, he pitches in, “she is a slut, yes.” All in good spirit – though a big point of contention for the islanders seems to be defining what is sacred and secret and what is public knowledge.
The set design was brilliant – a kind of sepia lighting pervaded the stage, a sand-like colour which evoked the maritime nature of the place, along with the pebbled border of the stage and the brown fishing netting hanging from the ceiling. When the scene-change lights went off a backlit sheet showed the distorted shadows of a band playing slightly haunting Irish folk music – a lovely touch, which saw in each new scene. The village shop was set up wonderfully – a simplistic wood and rope structure for cans of peas on shelves, sweeties and eggs on the countertop, papier mâché legs of lamb and bacon. The actors interacted with the set brilliantly – Kate Osbourne, Billy’s aunt, in her grief-provoked distraction lets cans of peas slide off the lopsided shelf over and over, and Helen, with a wry comment that she was England and her brother Ireland, smashed eggs on his head.
The characters sometimes gazed out towards the audience – the sea – and we sensed their entrapment, their isolation. But it is only the play’s titular character – the protagonist in that the plot pivots around him, but no more richly drawn or acted than the other characters – who seems really to want to get out. He tricks Babbybobby (quite cruelly) into sailing him over to a neighbouring island where an American film company are recruiting actors – he is desperate to escape his life, not so much because it’s a backwater, but because he doesn’t think he can become anything there: he wants love, but is told that he’d only ever be kissed by a blind girl; he wants to learn, but he’s scolded for using long words.
The audience are double-crossed by what seems to happen next: Billy leaves on the pretence to his adoptive aunts that he’s going for a screen-test in Hollywood, and yet the audience thinks they are privy to the knowledge that really he is taking himself off to die of tuberculosis. So he seems to be doing a Cyrano de Bergerac, perhaps to spare his aunts the pain of his suffering, or to spare himself the indignity. A strange scene surfaces mid-play; a spotlighted Billy shivers and coughs by a bed in a “one dollar boarding house” – an utterly convincing display of phlegmy illness by Toby Poole; he drums up a lot of pathos from the audience here – and I decided then that he never went to America at all.
And yet he returns, cured, it seems, and it appears that he did indeed go to Hollywood for the screentest and was met with rejection. This is a tricksy undercutting of the convention of dramatic irony by McDonagh, characteristic of his sarky, tongue-in-cheek style. It seems that Billy faked his diagnosis of tuberculosis – although another twist of fate (or rather, a ruse by the play’s mastermind) reorients the audience again; I won’t spoil it as I recommend watching this play!
Mermaids put on a fantastic show – very funny and subtly dire, this world we were immersed in for those couple of hours was richly drawn, all the characters were convincing and the accents very good. It had a wicked Irish charm and tragedy about it. A very good call from Mermaids, and brilliantly executed!